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BITS may apply for six financial gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2011, Domain Registries

BITS, the technology policy wing of the Financial Services Roundtable, may apply to ICANN for as many as six financially-focused new top-level domains.
The organization is pondering bids for .bank, .banking, .insure, .insurance, .invest and .investment, according to Craig Schwartz, who’s heading the project as general manager for registry programs.
(UPDATE: To clarify, these are the six strings BITS is considering. It does not expect to apply for all six. Three is a more likely number.)
Schwartz, until recently ICANN’s chief gTLD registry liaison, told DI that the application(s) will be filed by a yet-to-be-formed LLC, which will have the FSR and the American Bankers Association as its founding members.
It will be a community-designated bid, which means the company may be able to avoid an ICANN auction in the event that its chosen gTLD strings are contested by other applicants.
“We’ve looked at the scoring, and while it may not come into play at all we do believe we can meet the requisite score [for a successful Community Priority Evaluation],” Schwartz said. “But we’re certainly mindful of what’s happening in the space, there’s always the possibility of contention.”
There’s no relationship between BITS and CORE, the Council of European Registrars, which is apparently looking into applying for its own set of financially-oriented gTLDs, Schwartz said.
It’s not a big-money commercial play, but the new venture would be structured as a for-profit entity, he said.
“It’s relatively analogous to what’s happened in the .coop space, where after 10 years they have only about 7,000 registrations,” Schwartz said.
It sounds like pricing might be in the $100+ range. Smaller financial institutions lacking the resources to apply for their own .brand gTLDs would be a likely target customer base.
Interestingly, .bank may begin life as a business-to-business play, used primarily for secure inter-bank transactions, before it becomes a consumer-facing proposition, Schwartz said.
He added that it would likely partner with a small number of ICANN-accredited registrars – those that are able to meet its security requirements – to get the domains into the hands of banks.
VeriSign has already signed up to provide the secure back-end registry services for the bid.

AusRegistry drops the “Aus”, sets up in US

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2011, Domain Registries

AusRegistry International has rebranded itself as ARI Registry Services and will now offer new gTLD clients the option to host their domains in either Australia or the US.
ARIThe company has built itself a registry back-end in an undisclosed location on US soil to support the move.
Dropping the “Aus” appears to be specifically designed to address the perception that locating a gTLD in Australia is somehow technologically or politically risky, which ARI says isn’t the case.
ARI CEO Adrian Kinderis explained the decision in a press release:

We are the first to admit that the ‘Aus’ reference in our previous name incorrectly positioned us as a smaller, geographically focused organisation, which did create some issues with our plans for global expansion. Despite the fact we have an office and staff in the United States and clients situated in four of the seven continents around the world, there remained some belief that our services were somewhat isolated in Australia.

Potential gTLD applicants are concerned about issues such as “overzealous governments, privacy and ownership laws, political environments and financial benefits including currency fluctuations” that can vary according to the jurisdiction a registry is hosted in, ARI said.
A choice between the US and Australia may seem like a choice between one “overzealous government” and another, but it may at least put some insular American companies’ minds at rest.
While the move makes perfect business sense for ARI, I can’t help but feel that ICANN’s goal of increasing geographic diversity in the registry industry seems a little diminished this morning.
The rebranding does not affect the company’s parent, AusRegistry Group, which provides the back-end for Australia’s .au ccTLD.
ARI’s new domain is ariservices.com.

Win $5,000 for your new gTLD idea

Kevin Murphy, October 3, 2011, Domain Registries

Afilias is offering $5,000 for the best idea about what to do with a new generic top-level domain.
The company has kicked off a competition today designed to stimulate interest in ICANN’s new gTLD program.
It said in a press release this evening:

With this contest, Afilias is looking for unique new TLD ideas, whether that domain is a “dot Brand” (for a company) or a “dot Niche” (for a concept or community) or a “dot City” domain. The goal is to discover ideas for “right of the dot” domains that cannot be done today with any of the existing domains, like .com or .net.

Basically, you send in your best new gTLD idea – not just a string, but an innovative way to use it – and you stand a chance of winning prizes of $5,000, $3,000 or $1,500.
The contest web page can be found here. The rules are here.
According to the press release, I’ve agreed to be on the judging panel, apparently as the latest stage of my ongoing campaign of utterly shameless self-promotion.
The other judges are former ICANN president Paul Twomey, Matthew Quint of the Center on Global Brand Leadership and David Rogers of BRITE, both at Columbia Business School, as well as Afilias’ CTO and CMO, Ram Mohan and Roland LaPlante.
I’m not sure what to expect, but it strikes me that if you have a halfway decent idea for a new gTLD – and you don’t actually plan to apply for it – you may not have much to lose by entering.
Afilias is accepting submissions until October 17, just two weeks from now, and the winners will be announced October 24.

Even without Al Gore, don’t count Minds + Machines out of the .eco race

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2011, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines may have lost the support of Al Gore for its .eco bid, but it should not necessarily be dismissed as a contender for the .eco top-level domain.
The Guardian today reported that the former US vice president’s Alliance for Climate Protection campaign has dropped its support for the M+M-backed Dot Eco LLC .eco bid.
It noted that the other public .eco applicant, Big Room, is backed by former Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and it made some tenuous Cold War allusions accordingly:

The global power struggle, with echoes of the cold war, is over control of the new .eco internet domain which could be up and running by 2013.

But the Guardian has learned that Gore’s group has quietly dropped its plan, leaving the door open for Big Room to act as the registry for the new domain.

The reality is of course not quite as exciting, at least not to a general readership. Big Room in fact quickly distanced itself from the hyperbole in a blog post today.
Gore’s group did in fact stop supporting M+M’s .eco bid earlier this year. The site previously dedicated to the project, SupportDotEco.com, went dark for a while before being redirected to M+M in June.
It seems that the once-public M+M .eco project may now be a regular will-they-won’t-they bid.
So while The Guardian fairly reported that Gore is no longer in the running for .eco, that does not necessarily mean Big Room is a shoo-in either.
As I’ve previously commented, publicly announcing a gTLD application means absolutely nothing.
Big Room may secure .eco. M+M may. Any one of a number of potential candidates could win the contract.
Big Room, which has secured support from many organizations in the environmental community, intends to file its bid with as a self-designated “community” application.
Such a designation can enable applicants for contested gTLDs to avoid an auction, if they can score 14 out of a possible 16 points against the very strict criteria set by ICANN.
Big Room has spent a great deal of time building up support and setting proposed policies governing how .eco will be managed. It has some potentially innovative ideas about how to promote corporate responsibility using domain names.
“I hope people don’t try to hold the community hostage about this, I think our community been very transparent about their intentions,” said Big Room co-founder Trevor Bowden. “If this thing goes to auction, this community has no voice whatever. If they have no voice then the potential of .eco will be diminished.”
Minds + Machines, on the other hand, is on-record saying that it does not believe that .eco could possibly qualify as a community bid.
In July, CEO Antony Van Couvering published a piece on CircleID estimating that, with just nine points out of the 14 required to pass a Community Priority Evaluation, it would not.
It seems that “community” backing, even from an environmentalist as high-profile as Al Gore, may not be part of the M+M .eco application strategy.
With M+M parent Top Level Domain Holdings funded sufficiently to apply for gTLDs into double figures, I would not be at all surprised if .eco is among its target strings.
UPDATE (30/9/11): TLDH has confirmed that Dot Eco LLC will apply for .eco. The characteristically blunt press release also has a few choice words about gTLD applications backed by “celebrities”.

AusRegistry wins .jewelers deal

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2011, Domain Registries

GJB Partners, one of the few companies to recently announce a commercial new top-level domain bid, has selected AusRegistry International to provide the back-end registry for .jewelers.
It’s the first non-geographic TLD contract win AusRegistry has announced this year.
While it’s probably a small deal, it’s notable because one of GJB’s managing partners is George Bundy, CEO of BRS Media, the registry for .fm and a potential .radio applicant.
BRS is currently the only public reference customer for Espresso, the registry platform offered by Minds + Machines, an AusRegistry competitor.

Notes from day one of the Munich new gTLDs conference

Kevin Murphy, September 26, 2011, Domain Registries

The newdomains.org conference on new top-level domains kicked off here in Munich today, the first major show in Europe dedicated to new gTLDs.
The city is the grasp of Oktoberfest at the moment – the drunk tourist contingent is high, and it seems like every fifth person you pass on the street is in traditional local costume.
Hairy knees and lederhosen are the order of the day for the men. For the ladies: tight, low-cut biermädchen bodices and flowing skirts in earthy colors. Cleavage as far as the eye can see.
Munich feels, to this cultural Luddite at least, like it’s ready to dissolve into a bawdy, soft-core 1970s Bavarian sex comedy at any moment.
Thankfully, inside the stylish Sofitel Munich Bayerpost hotel the attire is strictly business-casual.
Turnout for newdomains.org appears to be good — maybe a couple hundred people — and there are plenty of faces beyond the “usual suspects”, thanks probably to the number of locals in attendance.
Today kicked off with a keynote from new ICANN chair Steve Crocker.
Allotted 30 minutes, he whizzed through his presentation on “New gTLDs: Innovation and Protection” in about 20, covering many of the same bases, I’m told by attendees, as he did at the INTA trademark conference in Washington DC last week.
“These new TLDs are a springboard for innovation,” he said. “But this must not happen at the expense of brand holders.”
At a press conference later, I got the distinct impression – and it is only my impression – that Crocker is rather more enthusiastic about the program than ICANN’s current softly-softly approach to new gTLDs outreach allows him to express.
The party line from ICANN for the last few weeks has been one of “awareness, not advocacy”, which Crocker toed loyally today.
This may be sensible – it should not be seen to encourage the world and his dog to apply for a new gTLD – but the end result is that the naysayers have managed to successfully frame the issue, which is reflected in the largely negative questions that are usually asked.
The conference is split into two streams, one aimed at newbies, the other at people in more advanced stages of planning their new gTLD bids. I’ve been mainly sitting in on the latter.
In the morning, Roland LaPlante from Afilias presented some really good data and charts showing domain registration trends in the new gTLDs that have been introduced over the last 10 years – both ICANN-approved gTLDs and ccTLDs such as .eu and .me.
If there was one big takeaway from that session, it was that the first and second-year renewal dates are crucial if you want to build a sustainable gTLD. Every TLD dips around that mark.
LaPlante also revealed that, in a first-quarter 2011 survey, 18.7% of .info addresses hosted unique, dedicated web sites. About 65% were inactive or redirected to other TLDs.
While this seems like a small amount, given the size of .info it actually works out to a couple of million people/businesses using a non-.com gTLD as their main home on the web. Any TLD, I think, would be happy to have so many actual users.
The main letdown in the Afilias data, I thought, was the absence of any mention of the success of .co.
Fair enough, .co is only a year old and its numbers are not fully public, but the cynic in me notes that its exclusion probably will have made Afilias’ back-end figures shape up against rival Neustar’s rather better than they would have otherwise.
In the afternoon, I moderated a panel on registration strategies in the world of new gTLDs, featuring Monte Cahn and Mike Berkens of Right Of The Dot and Tim Schumacher of Sedo.
But first, I caught the tail-end of a presentation about internet policy from PIR’s CEO Brian Cute, who seems to be worried about the growing problem of governments using domain takedown notices as a means of law enforcement.
Schumacher kicked off our session with a presentation on his thoughts about new gTLD pricing, in which he compared four categories of company you might find on the stockmarket to four equivalent categories of domain names.
Essentially, he concluded that new gTLDs are going to be split between “junk” – the gTLD equivalent of www.a-junk-site.ws – and “brands” – comparable to vodka.com.
He said the new gTLD boom will mean “Some new business. No real change.” in terms of pricing and said a small number of “disruptive” new registries could help the industry.
We then launched into a discussion of registries’ premium name strategies – how to balance the allocation of premiums between founders programs, landrush auctions and registry reservations.
Unsurprisingly, you couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between Cahn and Berkens, but I think there was probably some disagreement on the panel about the relative importance of the role of domain investors in promoting a new gTLD.
Berkens said that high-profile domainers are “market-makers”, helping set the valuation expectations, whereas Schumacher (and to a lesser extent some of my questions) put a greater emphasis on the need for end user adoption and development.
It’s difficult to judge the success of a panel you’re sitting on, but I will admit that we shamefully overlooked the issue of IDNs until the closing moments, which was entirely my fault.
I finished the day at the “Ask the Experts” session in the newbie channel, on the basis that I’ve listened to enough panels on new gTLDs in the last two years to know that the value, for me, is in the questions.
Sadly, possibly due to attendees flagging at the end of the day, there weren’t many questions from the floor, leaving professional moderator Melinda Crane to pick up the slack.
One session unlikely to have that problem tomorrow is a two-man panel on the Applicant Guidebook comprising ICANN’s Kurt Pritz and Olof Nordling.
Today, these two ICANN experts been sitting on the front row of many sessions, enabling panelists to deflect tricky audience questions about the application process to them.
I don’t think there will be any shortage of questions during their session tomorrow.

Should .com get a thick Whois?

Kevin Murphy, September 23, 2011, Domain Registries

The ICANN community has taken another baby step towards pushing VeriSign into implementing a “thick” Whois database for .com and .net domain names.
The GNSO Council yesterday voted to ask ICANN to prepare an Issue Report exploring whether to require “all incumbent gTLDs” to operate a thick Whois. Basically, that means VeriSign.
The .com and .net registries currently run on a “thin” model, whereby each accredited registrar manages their own Whois databases.
Most other gTLDs today run thick registries, as will all registries approved by ICANN under its forthcoming new gTLDs program.
The thinness of .com can cause problems during inter-registrar transfers, when gaining and losing registrars have no central authoritative database of registrant contact details to rely upon.
In fact, yesterday’s GNSO vote followed the recommendations of a working group that decided after much deliberation that a thick .com registry may help reduce bogus or contested transfers.
Trusting registrars to manage their own Whois is also a frequent source of frustration for law enforcement, trademark interests and anti-spam firms.
Failure to maintain a functional web-based or port 43 Whois interface is an often-cited problem when ICANN’s compliance department terminates rogue registrars.
Now that an Issue Report has been requested by the GNSO, the idea of a thick .com moves closer to a possible Policy Development Process, which in turn can create binding ICANN consensus policies.
There’s already a clause in VeriSign’s .com registry agreement that gives ICANN the right to demand that it creates a centralized Whois database.
Switching to a thick model would presumably not only transfer responsibility to VeriSign, but also cost and liability, which is presumably why the company seems to be resisting the move.
Don’t expect the changes to come any time soon.
Writing the Issue Report is not expected to be a priority for ICANN staff, due to their ongoing chronic resource problems, and any subsequent PDP could take years.
The alternative – for ICANN and VeriSign to come to a bilateral agreement when the .com contract comes up for renewal next year – seems unlikely given that ICANN did not make a similar requirement when .net was renegotiated earlier this year.

It’s official: London to seek .london gTLD

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2011, Domain Registries

The official promotional agency for the city of London has formally declared its interest in applying to ICANN for a .london generic top-level domain.
I reported the story for The Register yesterday, and the official press release was sent out this afternoon, but it appears that I was misinformed about the issuance of a Request for Proposals.
According to London & Partners, at the moment it is only analyzing the potential costs and benefits, as well as consulting with local stakeholders.
The agency said in its press release:

In addition to enhancing the promotion of the capital, London & Partners is investigating what opportunities the ownership of the gTLD licence could bring in terms of harnessing commercial revenue streams and new job creation, whilst ensuring value for money.

It’s been backed by the office of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.
Two UK registries, Nominet and CentralNic, have already thrown their hats in the ring as likely bidders if and when an RFP is released.

Overstock.com: a registry’s best friend

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2011, Domain Registries

O.co, the company formerly known as Overstock.com, has bought the domain name o.info directly from registry manager Afilias for an undisclosed amount.
It’s the first single-character sale Afilias has announced since ICANN gave it the go-ahead to release one and two-letter names from reserved status in April 2010.
What makes it particularly interesting is that O.co has agreed to build a separate web site at o.info, using the domain for the purpose suggested by the TLD string.
The idea of allocating a valuable name to a big brand in exchange for a use commitment – the “founders program” model – is of course now a standard part of a TLD registry’s marketing toolkit.
It’s more unusual too see the same tactics used to promote a decade-old gTLD.
O.co CEO Patrick Byrne said in a statement:

We will use O.info as a website destination to consolidate useful consumer information. The .info domain is the logical destination for visitors to find product information, user manuals, buying guides, manufacturer and brand reviews, video demonstrations and recall notices.

The price has not been disclosed. It could easily be in the six-figures, extrapolating from the $350,000 the company dropped on o.co last year.
On the other hand, it could be lower.
I feel certain that .CO Internet would have handed over o.co for free if it had known how much great publicity it would bring; it’s possible Afilias may have sacrificed part of its windfall in the hope of reaping some marketing benefits too.
It has 25 more letters to sell, after all.

M+M offers .brand gTLDs from $25k

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2011, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines is promoting its gTLD registry services to brand owners at the International Trademark Association meeting in Washington DC, revealing prices as low as $25,000 a year.
Its .brand package covers preparing and filing the application with ICANN and then running the technical back-end.
The company also appears to have introduced a price ceiling of $100,000 a year for .brand clients, according to a press release.
M+M is even offering to throw in a private, ICANN-accredited registrar. I believe the company may be the first registry to publicize this kind of bundled service.
The company is targeting brand owners that may not be convinced by the attractiveness of a .brand, and may have no clue what to do with one, but which nevertheless do not want to be left behind in the event that the second round of new gTLD applications is delayed for many years.
M+M CEO Antony Van Couvering is quoted as saying:

There are a lot of innovative ways for brands to use new gTLDs, but most brands want to first secure their gTLD for a reasonable price, and maybe use it internally, before deciding on the next step.

M+M, which hired former ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush as chairman in June, has been among the most aggressive marketers of new gTLDs (which are, after all, it’s entire raison d’etre).
Its enthusiasm has already caused a couple of raised eyebrows.
A teaser announcement from M+M earlier this week, which mentioned how its “registry platform is connected with all major registrars, including MarkMonitor” caused MarkMonitor to issue a clarification stating that it has “no business relationship” with the company.
While MarkMonitor is plugged into CoCCA, the registry platform that handles dozens of ccTLDs, it is not plugged into Espresso, which is M+M’s in-house version of the open-source CoCCA software, the company said in a blog post.
(UPDATE: M+M’s Antony Van Couvering notes in the comments below that MarkMonitor accepts .fm registrations, and that the .fm registry uses Espresso)
CoCCA itself felt compelled to issue a statement in July, clarifying that CoCCA and M+M are not working together on Espresso, as some had inferred from an M+M interview.